About | Project Members | Research Assistants | Contact | Posting FAQ | Credits

The iPod as Ebook

Research Report by
Marc Breisinger
(created 3/12/06; version 1.0)

Related Categories: New Reading Interfaces, Hardware Innovations

Original Object for Study description

As documents of any kind increasingly come in digital form, our reading habits change. Printing out documents on paper is still a common practice at the moment, but will cease to be so as better and more convenient devices for reading digital data come into existence. Reasons for this change include less effort for transport and printing, as well the trend towards overcoming text-only modalities. When ebook readers first appeared in 2000, they were unsuccessful, mainly because they were inconvenient. The iPod, originally marketed as an mp3 player, has the capability to display digital documents and combines this potential with various other features like audio, video and hypertext, which makes it a convenient and flexible accessory that may meet plenty of our reading needs.

The iPod is Apple’s extremely successful (over 3,7 million sold from 2001 till 2004) portable music player. By now it is in its fifth generation, also known as iPod video. Since its debut, it has gained computational power and various features that have increasingly less to do with portable music. The last generation has a 2.5” color LCD screen and is capable of holding and replaying up to 60 GB of video. It is also equipped with features from the PDA domain like a calendar, a contact database, and an unimposing but useful feature called “Notes,” which functions as a “workaround” for limited access to the device, for which various programs have been written, primarily by non professionals, to provide some kind of an “ebook functionality.” This report gives an overview about some outstanding tools for approaching the idea of using the iPod for various reading needs, discusses their benefits and drawbacks, and shows where these first steps might lead.

Fifth generation iPod (white)

A method for porting text documents is iPodLibrary [1]. This free tool converts documents from common formats (e.g., .htm, .txt, .pdf, .lit) to a format suitable for the iPod and splits the text into units, so they can be browsed more easily. This also supports the feature of memorizing the reader’s location in a document. The tool works well for linear text. Documents can easily be ported and read on-the-go without requiring the reader to carry more paper around. The screen size of the LCD is pretty suitable for the task as it holds around 45 characters per line, which is a convenient column width. As this tool is designed for former iPod generations without the high-developed LCD capabilities of the fourth and fifth generations, pictures are not transferred from the documents, which can be confusing. Another drawback is that it easily runs into trouble with differently formatted documents. For example a .pdf file which is formatted with two columns rather than one will have the text mixed up on the iPod, since the tool will attempt to read the text sequentially.

With iDocWriter[2]the user can not only write texts for the iPod, but also has some mighty capabilities for hyperlinking. Just as in a browser, links can appear in an extra section or within the text, leading to other parts of the document or referencing audio files. This feature was originally intended for providing background music while reading, but could of course also be used for narration, as well as for providing additional or redundant content. The potential of those techniques, which don’t even manipulate the iPod’s genuine software in any way, opens the path to a whole new field of applications like for example games[8] or educational programs (e.g., learning vocabulary from “hypercards.”) At the time of this writing, no application of this kind is known to the author.

It is of course possible and already common practice to use the iPod for audio books, but written books can also be read with the device. The bible, for example, is readable on the iPod and is additionally enhanced with audio[3]. Furthermore, various projects aim to port other reading capabilities of web browsers and home computers to the iPod. With, for example, pod2go[4], RSS feeds, weather forecasts, and emails, among others, can be synched to the iPod and read on the go. A drawback in this case is, for example, that RSS-Feeds are conceived for devices with internet access and usually only provide some keywords and a hyperlink. Without online capabilities, however, these links are not useful on an iPod. Nevertheless, it is very likely that an upcoming generation will be equipped with wireless internet access. Until then a good alternative is iPodulator[9], a website that can transform other websites into a form that is suitable for the iPod. The previous mentioned possibilities for equipping the iPod with reading capabilities are still found on a non-modified device. Apple does not yet provide a Software Development Kit for the iPod itself, although there are various SDKs available[7] (for example, an application for organizing and playing media files for iTunes offers different possibilities for accessing the iPod). Another approach can be found at the iPodLinux Project[5], which has successfully replaced / enhanced the genuine operating system of the device with a reduced version of Linux[6]. As the iPod has all the components of a multi media computer (see Technical Analysis) this offers possibilities far beyond Apple’s firmware. Except for the limitations of the physical user interface (five buttons and a wheel), any application—from learning software to text and picture rendering, movie capturing or peer-to-peer collaboration—could be possible.

Research Context:
As the iPod is equipped with a color LCD display, it can serve as a novel handheld reading device. Ebook readers like Rocket E-book (now RCA REB 1100), the French Cybook, or the Italian Myfriend were unsuccessful because they represented another widget to carry around. But like a PDA or cell phone, the iPod is a multi-purpose accessory; devices like it evolve to be used commonly in everybody’s daily life. This is why with increasing digitization the iPod and the like will influence our reading habits and the way we process information in general.

Technical Analysis:
The fifth generation iPod is a full-grown personal computer with a very limited physical interface (five buttons and a touch wheel). Nevertheless, it is equipped with possibilities to connect to USB or Firewire which allows a connection to other input devices, such as a camera or a keyboard. Furthermore, it features dual 32bit ARM7TDMI processors (160 MIPS), 80MHz per Core, 96 KB internal SRAM, 8 KB Cache for operating system and playback capabilities and a Broadcom BCM2722 150-MHz dual ALU VideoCore II, 128Kb cache, 10Mbit on-chip SRAM, 32 Mbit SDRAM Multi Media processor for video. This processor would also support camera input; The iPod video comes with either a Toshiba MK3008GAL 30GB 1.8” HDD or a Toshiba MK6008GAH 60GB 1.8” HDD and a 16 bit color 320×240 2.5” LCD. The 30 GB version has 32 MB, the 60 GB version 64 MB SDRAM. Its batteries provide power for eight hours without or approximately two hours with lit LCD.

Evaluation of Opportunities and Limitations for Transliteracies Project:
The iPod as a novel interface for reading suggests many potential directions that “online reading” might take. Reading in the sense of reading text is possible through its PDA, hypertextuality, audio-visual enhancement features. The video capability offers a whole new possibility of content transfer to the user. So called Podcasts (iPod + Broadcast) can be downloaded for free, covering almost any area of interest. Podcasts of TV News, for example, have the potential of reaching new groups of customers by providing freedom of place and time for consumption. This, like the above-mentioned possibilities—together with upcoming connection to the internet of those devices—introduces a whole new live style of online reading and hopefully contributes to a wider and more usable portfolio of education opportunities. So far, the iPod, though already capable of all attributes for successful reading and learning applications, has some limitations. These are mainly due to its physical interface, the fact that it has no direct internet access, and the fact of its non supported third party development. Nevertheless, these limitations will be very likely overcome in the near future.

Notes / Resources for Further Study:
[1] iPodLibrary, a tool for converting various ebook formats like PDF, TXT, HTM and LIT to an iPod readable format.

[2] iDoc Writer, a tool for writing documents for the iPod including hyperlinks and referencing of sound files.

[3] < Bibleplayer, the bible ported to the iPod with the option (Deluxe Version 20$) to have it narrated

[4] pod2go, a program that syncs the iPod with chosen RSS feeds, weather forecasts, movie reports, music lyrics etc.

[5] iPodLinux Project page, in this project a reduced version of linux was successfully installed on the iPod and various applications were developed for it.

[6] uCLinux, the reduced version of Linux installed on the iPod by the iPodLinux Project.

[7] Apple Development Kits.

[8] iPodArcade, a project page for iPod games.

[9] iPodulator, a website that can transform other websites into an iPod readable form.

  Marc, 03.12.06

One Response to The iPod as Ebook

  1. Julie Russell says:

    The foreign policy of every democratic country cannot but take into account the characteristics of culture of neighbouring countries when reaching decisions in foreign affairs, especially